When going out to eat with her family at the Ground Round or Chi-Chi’s or Bennigan’s, what child of the 90s didn’t have dreams of a mozzarella stick big as her head? None with any self-respect. Well, child, pull on your Hypercolor shirt, hike up your JNCOs, and kiss your troll doll goodbye, because StarChefs is taking you to the place where dreams really do come true: Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The granny-chic, mod-diner Hail Mary on Greenpoint Avenue is part of a zero-fucks-given trend of 90s nostalgia hitting menus across the city. The epitome of this comforting, throwback-style may be Hail Mary’s riff on the golden, glistening cheese stick: Deep. Fried. Burrata.
“It symbolizes what we do here,” says Ham El-Waylly, Rising Star winner, co-owner, and co-chef of Hail Mary with his wife Sohla. “You get the same satisfaction as from mozzarella sticks—we even use Progresso bread crumbs. Change that, and you lose the nostalgia.” El-Waylly grew up in Qatar, where his father was an importer of Western food products, including Progresso. At Hail Mary, he imports burrata from Puglisi, Italy, and replaces the all-purpose flour in the breading with binder flour—a trick he picked up at wd~50—that absorbs excess moisture, prevents “whey seepage” during frying, and helps to keep the over-sized, molten cheese sphere crisp. The essential sauce is comprised of San Marzano tomatoes, chile flakes, and garlic sliced Goodfellas-style. When asked what inspired this star of his menu, El-Waylly says, “Why not fucking deep fry that shit?!” Good question.
Staying on theme with molten centers, Il Buco Alimentari Pastry Chef Robert Bryant is bringing the soft-core chocolate cake back-like-Backstreet, in all its deep, dark, ooey-gooey glory. Anyone making or ordering dessert in the 90s is familiar with this irresistible, guileless classic (thanks Jean Georges). Bryant treats the lava cake with maturity and dignity, giving it Middle Eastern funk and depth with fenugreek and dates, the latter of which acts as a more healthful sugar substitute. On pick up, Bryant covers the cake with a loose fenugreek meringue and adds crunch with toasted coconut and cocoa nibs.
Remember portobello mushrooms? Twenty-eight-year-old Chef Jared Braithewaite does. Stuffed with all matter of anything and oft used as a burger substitute, since the 90s, the portobello has practically gone the way of curly parsley (or frosted tips and wallet chains). “It’s almost been forgotten,” says Braithewaite, chef of beloved Brooklyn Heights joint, Colonie. “But I think it’s cool when you can do something different with ingredients people are familiar with and open their eyes.” Braithewaite, who strives for accessibility with ingredients and menu-pricing, created a crostino topped with a luscious portobello mousse that rivals any chicken liver incarnation.
In 1993, Florence Fabricant penned an article for The New York Times entitled “The Almighty Caesar Reigns,” in which she noted the ubiquity of prepared Caesar dressings at supermarkets as well as the appearance of bins of new-to-market romaine. Emily Yuen, chef of Japanese comfort-food restaurant Bessou in NoHo, was 7 years old when that article was published. At Bessou today, Yuen joyfully fills a grilled romaine leaf with fried jako fish (boiled and dried baby sardines) for that iconic crouton crunch and characteristic anchovy flavor. The shout out to Caesar is finished with soy-braised quail eggs and dressed with sweet sesame-ginger sauce.
At a time when 90s America not only seems quaint but verging on utopian, a little nostalgic comfort, aligning palates and minds, literally brings us together around the table.